Skin thicker, patience thinner for John Oates


September 06, 1991|By Peter Schmuck

Baltimore Orioles manager John Oates would like to think that nice guys finish first once in a while, but it is getting harder and harder to be nice all the time.

Welcome to the wonderful world of major-league managing.

The club is struggling. The season is wearing thin. The rush of celebrity is wearing off. And the new manager doesn't feel so new anymore.

"Oh, you noticed," said Oates with a smile. "My family has been saying the same thing for a while now."

The pressures of the job. Oates lost 9 pounds the first four days after he replaced Frank Robinson in late May. He has lost 55 of 96 games, 20 of them by one run. He has even been known to lose his temper on occasion,

though nothing theatrical, of course -- just a bristle here and there.

It's all relative, of course. Oates' mild-mannered persona makes even a cross word seem more pronounced. He remains affable and approachable, but there is no question that he has become more preoccupied with the fortunes of his sixth-place team. If the family noticed it first, the family is the first to understand.

"I don't really think he's changed," said Gloria Oates, the manager's wife. "I think he has handled it surprisingly well. Yes, there are moments in the day that you can tell he's think

ing about the ballgame, but that's the nature of the job."

He has undergone a less subtle transformation at the ballpark, but perhaps a necessary one. The skin is a little thicker now, even if the patience is no longer without an end. Somewhere along the line, the power of positive thinking ran headlong into a wall of reality, and Oates has not always been able to hide his disappointment.

"I just have high expectations of myself," Oates said. "I just know that we can do better than we are doing right now. I've tried to form an honest opinion of the talent we have compared to the rest of the league. Maybe we don't have the talent to win 94 ballgames or whatever it would take to win the division, but we should have more than 54 wins."

The gap between expectation and realization may be the widest in the history of the club. Oates arrived too late to take the blame, but he knows he has to accept responsibility. Maybe that's why he has had trouble hiding his frustration when the club lives down to its place in the standings.

"I wouldn't say that my nature is volatile," Oates said. "I expect a lot of myself and, if anything, I'm not frustrated with the team. I'm frustrated because I can't get more out of it.

"What's happening to me is, you work to do the best you can. I take pride in putting players in position to have the best chance to excel. Maybe I take it personally when it doesn't work."

Case in point. Oates pulled starting pitcher Dave Johnson out of Monday's game after five-plus innings, hoping to hold a 4-1 lead and get his struggling team and his struggling right-hander a victory. Instead, the bullpen faltered and the Toronto Blue Jays came back to win in extra innings.

Quick hook or judicious managerial decision? Oates knows his judgment was sound, but he's still getting used to the fact that managing is not a perfect science.

"I've played that one over in my mind a hundred times," Oates said. "Dave had pitched four or five innings well before and then had problems. He gets a guy on and the guy coming up has hit a couple of shots off him. I think, 'This is the move to make now.' They don't hit a ball out of the infield and they get two runs out of it. I get frustrated that it didn't work."

Oates had one pat answer during his first three months as Orioles manager. For each of the 30-or-so times that someone asked him about a tough loss, he would respond that every loss is tough and every loss counts the same in the standings.

Only now is he becoming aware that every loss does not count the same in the psyche.

"I'm finally coming to realize that there might be something to that," he said. "The game in Minnesota that we lost, 14-3, we just got beat. That game [Monday], we should have won."

There are other theories for why Oates has exhibited more emotion during the past few weeks, but he won't endorse the most popular one.

He remains unsigned for the 1992 season, though there is little about the 1991 collapse that can be attributed to his on-field leadership. Glenn Davis was on the disabled list when Oates replaced Frank Robinson. The Orioles' starting rotation already was beginning to disintegrate. The season was lost long before May 23 -- the day that Oates realized his fondest dream.

Orioles general manager Roland Hemond hailed Oates as the man to lead the club into a brightening future, but only signed him through the end of a lost season. Hemond later would get a two-year contract extension. Oates still has room to wonder where he'll fit in two months from now.

He could be forgiven for being tense, but he says the contract situation has nothing to do with it.

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